Frederick Wiseman’s powerful, depressing—Roger Ebert called it “despairing” and that’s probably a better word—1967 documentary Titicut Follies revealed the sordid and horrific conditions of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
Wiseman’s camera watches impassively as the patients are bullied, taunted, herded like cattle, mocked, stripped, drugged and kept in sub-human conditions by the institution’s callously indifferent guards, social workers and psychiatrists. The film is a narrator-less, structure-less collection of some of the bleakest cinéma vérité images in film history. The footage of the yearly New Year’s Eve talent show, the “Titicut Follies” (“Titcut” is the Indian name for the Taunton river) featuring the inmates (and some of the staff) is like something straight out of a Harmony Korine film. In another scene, a doctor smokes a cigarette and dangles a long ash over a funnel as he inserts a long rubber tube into a patient’s nostril for a force-feeding.
Amos Vogel called Titicut Follies “a major work of subversive cinema and a searing indictment…of ‘the system” in his seminal book Film as a Subversive Art.
Wiseman, a Boston-born lawyer, had taken his law classes from Boston University to Bridgewater for educational purposes and decided he wanted to make a film there. He was granted permission to film at Bridgewater for 29 days. Although Wiseman got got appropriate assurances, releases and agreements from legal guardians, prior to the debut of Titicut Follies at the 1967 New York Film Festival, the state of Massachusetts tried to get an injunction stopping the screening, the state arguing that the film violated the patients’ right to privacy and dignity. A state court eventually ordered that all copies of the film should be destroyed, but Wiseman’s appeal—luckily he was a lawyer—to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, resulted in the film being allowed to be shown to doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students in related fields.
Wiseman appealed this decision to the United States Supreme Court, but got nowhere. Titicut Follies was the first film to be banned in America for a reasons other than obscenity or national security. In 1991, a Superior Court Judge allowed Titicut Follies to be released, citing the passage of time and the end of privacy issues (many of the patients were dead by then) and First Amendment concerns. On September 4, 1992, Titicut Follies was aired on PBS with a taped explanation of what audiences were about to see by Charlie Rose. A Titicut Follies DVD was released in 2007 by Wiseman’s Zipporah Films.